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Journal Articles Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology Year : 2008

The presence of females modulates the expression of a carotenoid-based sexual signal


Several environmental factors have been shown to shape the pattern of investment of carotenoids into the expression of sexual signals. Surprisingly, the impact of the social environment has been neglected. If a carotenoid-based sexual trait is used by females to choose a mate or by males to assess the quality of potential competitors for mates, males, in the presence of females, should upregulate expression of the trait. We tested this hypothesis in male zebra finches that were housed either with females or in a male-only social environment. Additionally, to investigate whether the social modulation of the expression of a sexual trait depends on the physiological need of carotenoids, we challenged half of the males with Escherichia coli lipopolysaccharide (LPS). We found that the social environment modulated the expression of bill color, with males kept in the presence of females harboring a redder bill at the end of the 3 weeks that the experiment lasted. Males injected with LPS showed duller bill color regardless of the presence of females, and social interactions with females result in upregulated bill color similarly for phosphate-buffered saline (PBS) and LPS males. Thus, social environment and immune activation had an additive effect on the expression of bill color. The effect of social environment on plasma carotenoids was less clear. Indeed, a first replicate of the entire experiment showed that both immune challenge and social context affected bill color, with a negative effect of immune challenge and a positive effect of the presence of females on circulating carotenoids. However, a second replicate of the experiment showed only a negative effect of the immune challenge. These results, therefore, suggest that the social environment can affect the expression of carotenoid-based sexual traits under both benign and carotenoid-demanding conditions. Whatever the signaling function of bill color (female mate choice or male-male competition for mates), the observed flexibility may be adaptive because the expression of the signal can be modulated depending on the expected rewards or costs associated with the presence or absence of females. Nevertheless, the mechanisms underlying such an effect are still unknown.

Dates and versions

halsde-00281675 , version 1 (23-05-2008)



P. Gautier, Marco Barroca, S. Bertrand, C. Eraud, M. Gaillard, et al.. The presence of females modulates the expression of a carotenoid-based sexual signal. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 2008, 62 (7), pp.1159-1166. ⟨10.1007/s00265-008-0544-1⟩. ⟨halsde-00281675⟩
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